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And the Beat Goes Phut

by Bill McCormick

Sparks swung his beater Ford Air-Tempo over the top of the banquet hall and let the parking beam guide him into the employees’ lot near the rear door. He yanked out his cargo-roller and began pulling his gear through the door. He watched as the kitchen staff gamely laid out rubber chicken and pseudo-potatoes in neatly arrayed silver chafing dishes and figured he was in for another night of clichés. Two hours after dropping the first “dinner music” track he was proved right.

“All the kitties in the house, lemme hear you MEE-OWWW!”

All these burb bitches are dumb as advertised, Sparks thought as he looked around the room and tried again. “All the kitties in the house, lemme hear you MEE-OWWW!”

This time he made a cat scratching pantomime with his hands. Slowly, the dim bulbs limmed and began making mewling noises. It was a start. He figured third time would be the charm.

“C’mon, all you kitties in the house, lemme HEAR YOU MEEEEE-OWWWWWWWWW!”

Now every woman in the room was in full on feral. He got the groove rolling beneath the sound of middle-aged women and their patently un-hip daughters trying to sound like cats and decided to amp up the boys and get this party started.

“All the dogs in the house, lemme hear you HOWWWLLLL”

That did it. Barks, howls and strange growling noises permeated the room as George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” blasted forth from the speakers. Sparks kept his fist pumping, because that’s what jocks are supposed to do, and soon slipped into Kool and the Gang’s “Celebrate.”

Jocks called those songs Vampire Tracks. Music that would not die. He was trying to figure out how long they’d been getting play at lame parties like this and stopped when he passed the century mark.

He granted that gigs like this would never get him the cover of DJ Times, but they paid the bills very well. Three or four nights a week and he hadn’t had a day gig in years. He used his Sunday nights at Otto’s to score hot babes and play the good stuff. But, since most of the big clubs were automated, Otto’s paid in beer, not money, so he worked the rest of the week under his real name and no one was the wiser.

Two hours later the rental-hall closed and it was time to go home. He wrapped up his vid screens and packed his jock box back onto its roller. He loaded them all into the back of his Ford and went back in to collect his check. There he was met by a very stern-looking Mrs. Alma Wilmington — of the West Hampton Wilmingtons’, thank you very much — and her mousy husband who had a name that Sparks had long since forgotten.

“Mr. Rathburger” — that was Sparks’ real name and she made it sound like the vilest profanity — “we never planned on this sort of debauchery at one of our soirées. There were people bumping into each other in a most provocative manner.”

Sparks smiled to himself. He’d run into this hundreds of times before and, sadly, would again.

“Well, Mrs. Wilmington,” he began smoothly, “the open bar ended at 10 and you’d paid me to spin until midnight. Look at it this way: you got your complete money’s worth out of me and your guests had a very good time. In fact I bet many will speak glowingly about this night for a long time to come.”

“He’s right, lambykins,” interjected the mouse, “even I shook a boogie.”

Yep, that particular visual was sure to haunt Sparks’ dreams for a while.

Seemingly mollified, Mrs. Wilmington handed Sparks his check and walked away.

“You did an exemplary job, young man,” continued the mouse, “and I, for one, wish you to know that everyone did indeed have a wonderful time. Very much unlike the Missus’ previous soirées.” With that he slipped Sparks a C-note and walked back to his wife.

Sparks could only shake his head and smile. It was the same every time. He walked out to his old Ford, set the height at 15 feet and lifted off.

He cruised the commuter lane down old I-90, past the O’Hare spaceport, just so he could catch a couple of the evening launches as he passed by. He was about a mile north of the spaceport when he saw the wreck. It was a bad one.

There were flames coming out of the rear of the car and it was surrounded by emergency vehicles. It’d been decades since anyone had wrecked a car. Even if you were stone drunk, someone could pile you in, punch “home” in the GPS and the car would take you there.

Many people didn’t even bother learning to drive any more. They just bought the car, plugged in their usual destinations and left the driving to the onboard robots.

Hell, thought Sparks, the whole car’s pretty much a robot.

Even so, Sparks was a bit of an iconoclast and had actually taken the drivers-ed course and passed it. He liked the feel of driving and liked being in control of his own fate. To get past the lookie-lous, he moved up to the 40-foot lane and eased to the left. He hadn’t gone another mile when he saw the second accident.

It was as bad as the first. Maybe even worse, since it looked like they had body bags on the side of the road. He was stunned. There was no way he knew of that two accidents could happen on the same stretch of road on the same night. Cars just had too many safeguards.

He decided to flip on the autopilot so he could find the news on the radio.

“Pull up to my bumper, baby...” crooned the autopilot. Until now his autopilot had merely said “engaged” or “disengaging”; this was a new and mildly unwelcome development. He also quickly realized that the autopilot wasn’t autopiloting.

He took control of the car and headed towards Sully’s. The booze was cheap, the bartender didn’t give a damn and vids were always turned to the news.

By the time he got there he’d passed another four wrecks, two involving multiple vehicles. He knew there was something horribly amiss in the universe, but couldn’t for the life of him fathom what it might be.

He landed and locked his car and walked in to Sully’s just as the announcer was helpfully explaining what was going on.

“Every robot across the world is either shutting down or singing ancient pop music. Many are doing both. A terrorist group calling themselves The Disciples of Queen Mutapha has claimed responsibility for the carnage.”

The announcer continued on but Sparks wasn’t paying attention any more. Someone, somehow, had finally done it. There’d been threats before, but no one took them seriously. After all, who would want a world without robotics? They handled pretty much everything these days.

The ever-surly bartender walked over and Sparks ordered a shot and a beer. While he was waiting for his drink, a doe-eyed young man, about his age, sat next to him.

“Pretty crazy, ain’t it?” asked the stranger.

“Got that right,” Sparks agreed, “I wonder how they did it?”

He was more than a little surprised to get an answer.

“Easy, really. We just uploaded the virus into one of the server satellites and waited. A couple of orbits later every robot on the planet was infected. Then the techno-Armageddon began.”

“We?” stammered Sparks almost spilling his beer, “You’re one of the terrorists?”

“Ibrahim,” replied the doe-eyed stranger sweetly, nodding to Sparks.

Sparks took a long pull off his beer and swallowed his shot in one gulp. He set the empty glass in the rail to get another and took a long look at the stranger. Except for his amiable admission of global terrorism he looked perfectly normal. Neat clothes, nothing flashy, simple haircut, the usual. No wild-eyed glare or evil aura about him at all. In fact, Sparks’ first guess would have been insurance salesman.

“People have known for a long time,” Ibrahim continued, “that the human race has ceased creating or doing. Art, such as it is, has become passive and abstract. Music, save for the underground that spawned the likes of us, has become audio oatmeal. Books, vids, the rest, have all become very distant. So remote that there are entire shows where the characters really have no names, just rudimentary designations.”

Sparks knew what he meant. It was one of the reasons he almost never turned on his home vid. But sympathy was not forgiveness. Sparks had seen people die. “I’m calling the cops.”

“No, you’re not,” stated Ibrahim calmly. “All emergency services are distributed by robots. Unless someone happens upon a scene, they’ll never know about it.”

That explained the rescue crews on the highways. They were spaced about two miles apart “just in case” in all urban areas. Normally considered an extravagant waste, he bet people were damn glad for that bit of excess now.

Sparks mulled over his situation for a bit and then asked the obvious. “Okay, why tell me?”

“Oh, we agreed that we would each tell one random stranger once it began,” he stated blithely, “there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it now and our escape plans have been laid for over a year. By tomorrow we’ll be gone, and the world will face a new way of life.”

“Millions will die tonight.” Sparks kind of hoped he’d get through to the guy and, somehow, stop everything.

“Yeah,” replied Ibrahim, “that was the one fact that held us back. We’re not psychopaths, um...”


“We’re not psychopaths, Sparks. We just wanted to heal humanity.”

“Heal?!?!” Sparks spat. “Heal? How the hell are you healing humanity when you’re the cause of millions of deaths?”

“Not yours,” reminded Ibrahim before he continued. “Think of it like this: when a person gets burned, they cut off the dead flesh so the rest can heal. That’s what we’ve done tonight. We’ve cut off the dead flesh. All those people who couldn’t survive without robots will simply no longer survive. The rest, like you, will.”

Sparks glanced up at the vid just in time to see a No/Sou Space Liner go spiraling into Lake Michigan. All interplanetary pilots had been phased out years ago as a cost-cutting move. The same held true for many infrastructure-related jobs. The whole fabric of what humanity had become was being unwound. They were getting a do-over, whether they wanted one or not.

Sparks, not knowing what to do next, sat with Ibrahim and watched the death toll rise. He did note that Ibrahim seemed very disquieted but nevertheless made no move to stop the devastation.

“You’ve made your point,” said Sparks after a few minutes, “you can stop this.”

“No,” he sighed, “I can’t. Nor can any of the rest of us. The virus was like an old-style ‘set it and forget it’ bomb. Once it went off it was out of our control.”

“Why would you do this? I mean, seriously, you sat down and decided to play God. Hell, not even God. At least God supposedly gave man free will. You just made the choice for everyone.”

Sparks waited while Ibrahim sipped his bourbon and formed an answer. “My mother” — he opened with a non sequitur — “will be coming home from Bingo about now. She’s never learned to drive. She saw no need, claimed it was too hard and not worth the effort. She never wanted me to learn either. Just relax and enjoy life, she’d say. I thought of her when I saw you land.”

He paused, took another sip and continued, “When we came to this decision we knew what the consequences would be. It was decided that each of us had to have a personal stake in the outcome or it would mean nothing. It sounded right at the time.”

Sparks had had some beer-fueled philosophy discussions in his day and speculated how much alcohol it took to make this sound logical.

“So you killed your families?” Sparks wondered aloud. “That was your justification for all this? That makes it all right?”

“No,” Ibrahim went on, “that was not all. Some of will lose family tonight, to be sure, but that was far from all of it. We had to ensure that this path would never again be taken by humanity. We had to close the door utterly. For that to happen, we had to set up some sort of safeguard, some oversight that humans would never see or feel. An oversight that would last millennia if need be.”

Sparks felt his jaw drop. “You’re going to upload your minds into robots. I’ve heard rumors about that, but I thought the tech was decades away.”

Ibrahim nodded, “Yeah, we can do that now. We’ve been able to for years. It was just the government, my now former employer, taking it slow and getting people used to the idea.

“But we saw the rest when we ran the simulations. We saw humanity die and become a shadow of itself in the cybercosm. We ran the projections over and over just to be sure there was no mistake. There wasn’t.

“Frederick Pohl’s ultimate dream was going to be a nightmare. Anything a mind could conceive would become real to it and to it alone. With no need to strive for anything, mankind would stagnate and eventually die. All that had gone before would simply vanish over time. Simply put, the death you see tonight will prevent the death of the human race. It was a sacrifice that needed to be made.”

“But, isn’t uploading your mind supposed to be fatal to your body?” asked Sparks. “That’s what they said on a docu-vid a few months ago.”

Ibrahim simply nodded and ordered another drink.

Sparks just sat and tried to absorb it all. There was something very wrong with what Ibrahim and his partners had done, but with no way to stop it, all Sparks could do was wonder if any good would really come out of it.

The two men sat for another hour or so, silently sipping their drinks and watching the horrors unfold on the vid. Every update brought news of liners crashing, trains running amok, building security systems randomly injuring people and worse.

Somehow, despite all that he now knew, Sparks was disconnected from the calamity. It was too much for one mind, the massacre too great. Death upon fiery death brought only numbness.

Somewhere in his wool-gathering, Sparks remembered the lyrics to one of the Vampire Tracks he’d played earlier tonight. Ibrahim, Ibrahim, Allah, Allah, Allah will pray for you, sang the glorious voice in his mind.

He turned to Ibrahim. “It’s a pity they forgot the possessive ‘s’ in your group’s name.”

Ibrahim put down his drink, smiled wanly, and walked out of the bar into the anti-techno new groove he’d helped create, leaving Sparks to his drinks, his thoughts and his future.

Copyright © 2011 by Bill McCormick

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